|20th century painting by Sydney King of Africans arriving in Virginia in 1619|
According to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, slavery in this country began on a day in August of 1619 when “the Jamestown colonists bought 20-30 enslaved Africans from English Pirates” and thus “set the course for what would become slavery in the United States.” This could be considered a “new origin story” for the United States, the Times has suggested. And that's the subtitle of the book version of the Project, which comes out next month.
Yet for all the significance the Times gives to this event, it does not dwell for long in 1619 or explain how the arrival of those 20 souls aboard the privateer, White Lion, led to such a consequential outcome—that is, North American slavery and the essential character of the United States.
How did 20 presumably free “townspeople” from the Ndongo district of Angola turn into enslaved Africans by the time they arrived in Virginia? Did it happen at the moment when they were captured by Imbangala warlords or when they arrived at the port of Luanda on Angola’s west coast? When they fell into the hands of Englishmen? When they stepped off the boat at Port Comfort, Virginia? The Times leaves these questions unanswered.
John Rolfe, who wrote the only surviving account of the event, does not refer to them as “slaves,” or “enslaved.” He simply calls them “Africans.”
Could it be that the New York Times has engaged in what Barbara Fields has called “racecraft,” turning the captive Africans magically into slaves because of their skin color? Earlier that year, 100 vagrant white English children, purchased in London for 5 pounds each, arrived in Virginia and were also sold as unfree labor. No one assumes they were “enslaved,” though they certainly weren’t free. They are assumed to have been treated as “indentured servants,” though few would outlive their terms of service. Meanwhile, a not insignificant number of African servants did live long enough to gain freedom, and some of them acquired land and both black and white unfree servants.
In fact, what happened in late August of 1619 does not seem to be much of an “origin story.” It does not mark the beginnings of slavery on the territory that would become the United States. Slavery had been practiced before European contact by the indigenous people of the Americas who enslaved war captives from neighboring tribes—like pre-state peoples had done throughout human history. The Spanish and Portuguese had imported some 300,000 Africans to the New World as slave labor before 1619 and a few of them had ended up in the Spanish colonial possessions of North America, including on territory that would later be occupied by the English and become part of the 13 original United States.
One-half to two-thirds of the immigrants who came to the American colonies arrived as indentured servants. The landowners of Virginia did not want to do the dirty, backbreaking labor required to grow and harvest tobacco. Even the hard-working yeomen of New England brought unfree servants—eight of whom died on the Mayflower during its Atlantic crossing.
There is no consensus among historians on whether the Africans who arrived in 1619 were “enslaved.” In an essay commemorating the 1619 anniversary in the Guardian, published just four days before the Times Project, Nell Irving Painter, a leading authority on the global history of slavery, wrote: “People were not enslaved in Virginia in 1619, they were indentured.”
It may be true that African servants received worse treatment than white indentures in those early years. As the work of Winthrop Jordan* suggests, the English seem to have been culturally predisposed to see people with darker skin in a more negative light. On the other hand, they had no trouble racializing the Irish and other white people—that is, categorizing them as a different, and inferior breed of people, who were naturally unsuited to freedom.
The experience of the 20 Africans who disembarked from the White Lion would be quite different from the later experience of enslaved people on 18th and 19th century Virginia plantations. In most of the 17th century, unfree African laborers worked and lived alongside white indentured servants. Black and white servants married each other and rebelled against masters together.
The evolution to chattel slavery would take place over time as the result of contingent factors and human decisions that were not inevitable as of 1619 and that are most memorably explained in Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom. In other words, the sale of Africans from the White Lion in 1619 did not “set the course for" American slavery.
It might be said that in human history, no course is ever “set” by its starting point, but is subject, at every moment, to unpredictable contingent factors, including human intervention.
The census of 1620 categorized the people who had stepped off the White Lion as "African servants" rather than as black slaves and from 1619 to 1660, the status of Africans in Virginia was in flux. Initially, Virginia landowners do not seem to have been eager to replace white indentured servants with Africans—whether they considered them slaves or some other sort of unfree labor. They had not requested the White Lion’s delivery and while the census of 1620 listed 32 inhabitants, by 1625 there were only 23—and as late as 1640 Africans made up only 1.4% of the population. The word slave does not appear in Virginia law until 1655, in reference to enslaved indigenous people, not Africans. During those gestational years tax records show that 20 percent of Black colonists owned land in some counties.
Increasingly after mid-century, though, servants of any color who had gained freedom could not make a living and some were forced back into indenture. By the 1670s economic conditions had turned Virginia's working-class into a powder keg that exploded in Bacon's Rebellion, in which black and white workers joined forces and marched on the capitol. By that time Virginia’s ruling class had already begun to make separate laws pertaining to African laborers. They had seen the demographic and economic writing on the wall, as the supply of white labor from England dried up, the availability of land for freed indentures evaporated, and the cost-effectiveness of enslaving Africans improved.
But it wasn’t until 1662—43 years after the White Lion—that Virginia passed the first law that distinguished between the status of black and white workers. Over the next forty years, Virginia legislators slowly added to a body of law that culminated in the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705, which drew sharp distinctions between white and black servants, made slavery heritable for Blacks and affirmed the superior status of white workers. Perhaps the most telling of these laws was the one that prohibited marriage between Black and white persons. The fact that such a law was necessary suggests that racism was not an inherent quality of a white skin but had to be enforced.
There is a rich debate among historians on the source of white racism. Edmund Morgan's landmark and very influential study of the subject holds that slavery emerged from the need of Virginia planters for a reliable source of labor to tend the tobacco crop and that racism was an ideology that justified the labor system and kept the working class divided, weak and unable to challenge planter hegemony as they had tried to do during the 1676 Rebellion. Morgan points to the willingness of white laborers to associate with black fellow workers and even intermarry as evidence of a lack of racial animosity among the white working class before this new system was in place.
His great rival, Winthrop Jordan, emphasizes evidence predating this period and showing anti-black attitudes among Englishmen. Both historians support their arguments with ample evidence and impeccable research, but where Morgan might look to Bacon’s Rebellion, or the decline in the supply of white labor after 1660 as more important moments than 1619, Jordan’s magnum opus opens in the mid-1500s, when the English first encountered West Africans and were overwhelmed by their “otherness.”
Painter might cite the 21-year-old Ottoman Sultan Mehmed’s overthrow of Constantinople in 1453 as a key moment in process of African enslavement and the development of anti-Black racism. When the Turks took over Constantinople and the eastern Mediterranean, she writes, they cut off the western supply of non-African slaves and sugar, and the search for alternative sources led to the African slave trade and the creation of sugar plantations in the New World, especially the Caribbean. Of the roughly 10 million humans who survived the middle passage from Africa to the New World, it’s estimated that more than 60% went to Brazil or the sugar-producing Caribbean. Only about 6% ended up in the 13 English colonies of North America. “Sugar making,” Painter writes, “became synonymous with America—and with African slaves.”
None of this determined that by 1845, one state in the US would be able to produce a quarter of the world’s sugar supply. That did not become inevitable when the Turks took Constantinople, or when Columbus arrived in the New World or even when Africans started to be enslaved and sugar started to be grown in the New World. In the Times, Khalil Gibran Muhammad describes a complex process that involved natural factors like the rich soil of the Mississippi Valley, but also human ones like the expertise of French and Spanish planters, some of whom had been exiled from Haiti after the revolution there; Étienne de Boré’s establishment of the first sugar processing plant in New Orleans in 1795; and of course the labor of enslaved people. Muhammad does not mention Napoleon, whose decision to sell the Louisiana territory—or Thomas Jefferson, whose decision to buy it, perhaps in violation of the Constitution—meant that all of this would happen on United States territory and become part of our history, and the Times special section on slavery.
It’s not hard to imagine how things might have turned out differently if Mehmed had been less precocious or enslaved Haitians had not risen up against their French masters; if Napoleon had been less strapped for cash, or Jefferson more true to his strict-constructionist principles; or if John Rolfe hadn’t figured out how to grow tobacco in Virginia and the servant class of Virginia hadn’t united across class lines behind Nathaniel Bacon and marched on Jamestown.
*Winthrop Jordan: No relation. But in the 1950s he did teach history at Phillips Exeter Academy. For an excellent account of Jordan’s contribution to the history of slavery and racism, see: Laurence Shore, "The Enduring Power of Racism: A Reconsideration of Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black," History and Theory 44 (May 2005), 195-226. It's a long article but not as long as Jordan's 1968 monograph.